Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Guitar

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The beginnings of the European guitar are unknown. Scholars disagree as to whether the guitar, like the lute, was introduced to medieval Europe from the Middle East, or if it was indigenous to Europe. It is impossible to establish the history of the guitar before the Renaissance, but there are some much earlier plucked-string instruments which are related to later guitars either in physical form or playing technique. One of the earliest of these is a long-necked lute, either Roman or Byzantine, from Egypt. The lute has a waisted soundbox (or body) like a guitar and survives from the third to sixth century (12.182.44).


The vihuela and guitar existed simultaneously until the seventeenth century, when the popularity of the guitar superseded the vihuela.

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During the medieval and Renaissance periods, a wide variety of plucked stringed instruments can be found in both literature and art. They include the citole, cittern, vihuela, mandore, gittern, and, of course, the lute and its variants. During the Renaissance, the guitar's closest contemporary was the vihuela. The vihuela is a larger instrument than the guitar, with six or seven courses of strings and tuned like a lute. It is sometimes pictured with sharply cut waists, like on a violin (20.92), and sometimes with rounded corners like a guitar (25.2.26). The vihuela and guitar existed simultaneously until the seventeenth century, when the popularity of the guitar superseded the vihuela.


The first instruments that modern audiences would recognize as guitars were built in the fifteenth century. At that time, the guitar was much smaller than its modern counterpart, with four double courses of gut strings (occasionally the top string was single). The guitar also had tied gut frets, friction tuning pegs, a decorative rose, a bridge set near the bottom of the instrument, and sometimes a rounded rather than a flat back. Its courses of double strings were tuned in the intervals of fourth, major third, fourth (for example, g'/g-c'/c'-e'/e'-a'), often with the lowest course in octave rather than unison doubling.


The four-course guitar enjoyed a rich repertory in the sixteenth century that included dances, fantasias, chansons, and other secular genres. The instrument was widely played in France, Italy, England, and throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Four-string guitar repertory includes works by the Spanish composers Alonso Mudarra (ca. 1510–1580), Miguel de Fuenllana (died after 1568), and Juan Vasquez (ca. 1510–ca. 1560); the Italian composer Melchiore de Barberiis (published 1549) and lutenist Alberto da Ripa (ca. 1500–1551); the French composer Guillaume Morlaye (published 1550); and the printers Adrian Le Roy (ca. 1520–1598) and Pierre Phalèse (ca. 1510–1573).


The Baroque Guitar
The Baroque guitar is similar in shape and body to earlier guitars, but is typified by five double courses of strings (which appeared as early as the late fifteenth century). From about 1600 until the mid-eighteenth century, its popularity supplanted both the four-course guitar and the six- or seven-course vihuela. The five-course baroque guitar was a bit larger than the earlier model, averaging approximately 92 centimeters long, with string lengths of 63-70 centimeters. Guitars used by players were probably relatively plain, perhaps typified by many Spanish guitars of the period. Many decorative guitars survive, including those by the Sellas family of Venice and Bologna and by Jean-Baptiste Voboam in Paris (1990.103; 1989.147).


The Baroque guitar had a rich repertory of solos and accompanied songs. Some of the finest seventeenth-century composers for solo guitar were Francesco Corbetta (ca. 1615–1681), who worked for both Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England; Angelo Michele Bartolotti (first half of 17th century–after 1669); and Giovanni Battista Granata (died after 1684). Vocal works appeared with guitar accompaniment by such well-known monody composers as Giulio Caccini (ca. 1545–1618), Emilio de' Cavalieri (ca. 1550–1602), Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), and Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). A characteristic Italian guitar notation called alfabeto, a letter system representing strummed block chords, was utilized for many solos and accompaniments, although tablature continued to be used until the mid-eighteenth century, when staff notation replaced it. Guitarists were also expected to improvise continuo accompaniments from figured and unfigured bass lines.


The repertory of the Baroque guitar required a mixture of techniques, including strummed or rasgueado chords, punteado (the characteristic pizzicato lute technique), and the ringing melodic passage-work called campanelas. Five-course guitars featured a variety of tunings; one typical tuning was a/a-d'/d'-g/g-b/b-e'. The third course is the lowest, a system called "re-entrant" tuning, so that two fingers could more easily combine the low fifth and third courses with higher courses in scale passages. Also, without true bass strings, the instrument has a higher, brighter sound than the modern guitar.


The five-course guitar was a Spanish favorite, but spread to Italy and then to France, England, Germany, and the Low Countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Jayson Kerr Dobney
Department of Musical Instruments, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wendy Powers
Independent Scholar